In his first work of nonfiction since the acclaimed On Fire, Brown aims for nothing short of ruthlessly capturing the truth of the world in which he has always lived. In the prologue to the book, he tells what it's like to be constantly compared with William Faulkner, a writer with whom he shares inspiration from the Mississippi land. The essays that follow show that influence as undeniable. Here is the pond Larry reclaims and restocks on his place in Tula. Here is the Oxford bar crowd on a wild goose chase to a fabled fishing event. And here is the literary sensation trying to outsmart a wily coyote intent on killing the farm's baby goats. Woven in are intimate reflections on the Southern musicians and writers whose work has inspired Brown's and the thrill of his first literary recognition.
But the centerpiece of this book is the title essay which embodies every element of Larry Brown's most emotional attachments-to the family, the land, the animals. This is a book for every Larry Brown fan. It is also an invaluable book for every reader interested in how a great writer responds, both personally and artistically, to the patch of land he lives on.
Celebrated for depicting the dark, seamy side of Southern life, Mississippi novelist Brown (Fay; Father and Son) turns to sunnier topics in this loose-jointed collection of essays paying tribute to the people and places that influenced his writing. The title piece, a rueful reflection on son Billy Ray's persistent bad luck with cattle, sets the tone: despite dead calves, misbehaving bulls, rampaging coyotes and dilapidated fences, father and son remain optimistic. "Billy Ray's farm does not yet exist on an earthly plane," writes Brown. "On Billy Ray's farm there will be total harmony, wooden fence rows straight as a plumb line, clean, with no weeds, no rusted barbed wire." As Brown details his own efforts to impose harmony on his farm by building a house ("Shack"), protecting his stock from predators ("Goatsongs"), clearing brush and stocking fish ("By the Pond"), he balances pastoral odes with a clear-eyed accounting of the costs of country living. That realism gives Brown's narratives a plainspoken truth that makes more believable the simple pleasures he takes in these simple tasks. The writer's home life in Oxford, Miss., is more compelling than his chronicles of book tours and writers conferences ("The Whore in Me"), but the latter is kept to a minimum. More successful are the tributes to literary mentors Harry Crews and Madison Jones and to the men who taught him "the fine points of guns and dogs" after his father's death, when Brown was 16. These humble personal essays, which provide a glimpse at the long apprenticeship of a writer who came up the hard way, leave the reader hoping Brown will soon tackle a full-blown autobiography.